Among last year’s Little Women remake’s many achievements is the fact it put Eliza Scanlen on the map as an actor to watch and Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth further solidifies her impending stardom. However it does so in a film that despite some occasionally heartbreaking asides that are worth remembering, never makes enough of an impact in the way it clearly intends to. Either due to its glacial pacing, oftentimes confusing, see-sawing tone or just the listless way the camera floats around, intent to portray its characters as ghosts in their own individual stories. Babyteeth squanders the potential of its excellent cast in a film that never really pushes them beyond occasional surreal comedy and muted grief.
Revolving around Milla (Scanlen), a sixteen year old girl who because of a serious diagnosis finds herself trapped between trying to get better and wanting to enjoy life while she can. Her parents Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) and Anna (Essie Davis) are somewhere between denial and acceptance, stuck hoping for the best but bracing for the worst while putting up a facade on normality while self medicating their pain away. When Milla brings home drug addict Moses (Toby Wallace), he drags a family in a daze out of their stuppor and avoidance, forcing them to face life head on, sometimes in the worst possible way.
While each character is diligently given their own individual stories, some more fleshed out than others (Wallace is lumped with the thinnest of the lot), Rita Kalnejais’ script does little to bring these stories together, despite some powerful performances and chemistry between all four. Davis in particular takes everything she is given as far as she can take it. While Murphy wants to give this story room to breathe it keeps its players at a distance, constantly away from each other, with what little interactions they find themselves sharing glossed over in favour of individual narratives. For a family drama, the constant distance between everyone saps the family right out of it and while a minimal but stirring closing sequence brings their bond flooding back, it never really remedies the effects of a story that seems to miss the point.
While its a well constructed story of young love and renewed life, the film constantly jumps from black comedy as Anna dulls her emotions in starkly funny fashion with handfuls of pills or Moses clumsily threatening people while proving himself the lovable idiot he actually is, to cutting emotional drama. Told in chapters, Shannon doesn’t make these shifts feel natural by linking these tones to fluctuating emotions, like the changing of seasons, instead they happen suddenly halfway through sequences in almost nauseating fashion as one minute you are laughing, the next you feel almost guilty for finding any humour in this cancer drama. It means that for large swaths of Babyteeth is just adjusting to narrative whiplash.
A sequence shoehorned into Babyteeth’s middle chapter where Milla goes to a party with Moses while one of the films most stunning sequences, a visual wonder of bright neon lights and psychedelic cinematography does little to help you understand Milla or Moses, as Shannon’s shots merely follow her subjects around a party, allowing them to breathe in the atmosphere of this party but the camera is never invasive enough to make the sequence add to the overall experience.
While none of this puts a dent in an ending that effectively makes most of a messy film seem focused by comparison, the idea that life will pass you by if you don’t face it head on looms large, a message for anyone, not just for the people dealing with tragedy. While a final family moment of beach bliss hits home it doesn’t build off anything, it doesn’t serve as the crescendo to a beautiful piece of music, instead it sneaks up on you which makes it guttural storytelling but serves to remind that with a more driven film behind it, Babyteeth’s ending could have been devastatingly great.
Never mawkish, this coming of age narrative is distressing at times, funny in others but never complete, content to follow and never push itself to where it naturally feels like it is headed. Full of side stories and listless people, its hard to see a point here, even if the story is serviceable, it never really makes itself felt and for a film about squandered possibilities i find that remarkably ironic.